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Failing the Density Test: Our Biggest Goblin

Sam Newberg / Oct 30 2009

For Release Friday, October 30, 2009

Sam NewbergHalloween’s ghouls and goblins make for a spooky night in our cities and towns. But nothing fills me with more fright than missing the opportunity to build dense, attractive transit villages around our rail stations, thereby reducing sprawl and lowering our collective carbon footprint.

I’ve seen the upside opportunity in London, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere–housing, offices, shopping and leisure destinations all within a short walk of transit stations. The overriding equation is density, a notion that is frightening to many.

A number of leading urban experts, demographers and think-tanks are forecasting that more cities will develop like this in the future. The Urban Land Institute’s recent “The City in 2050″ is loaded with visions of high-tech, denser cities with improved transit systems and a reduced carbon footprint. Coupled with these visions are studies by the likes of the demographer Arthur C. Nelson, who predicts that demand for large-lot single-family housing will be negligible in the next 20 years, whereas the future of housing development lies in attached housing.

The stars seem to be aligning. Or are they? The popular strategy for accommodating the future vision of smarter, denser cities, coupled with meeting forecast housing demand, is transit villages like those found in our older and popular cities. The idea is that these transit villages will have areas next to urban rail stations that accommodate intense development, thereby reducing the population’s carbon footprint and making cities more efficient.

A number of very attractive and popular transit villages have emerged in the past decade in cities like Dallas, Denver and Portland. Well-known places like Mockingbird Station, Englewood, and Orenco Station are favorites among planners, developers and transit village advocates. I’ve seen these and other newer transit villages, and they are not ghost-towns–far from it. They are popular for good reason, as they provide very attractive, walkable places with a mix of uses and access to the regional transit system.

However, I’ve noticed in many cases that these newer transit villages lack the density achieved in older, established cities. Perhaps these newer transit villages are just testing the waters, a primer for cities and developers to ramp up density in the future. But I wonder if we are selling ourselves short.

Are we greening our cities, or are we just dressing up auto-dependent sprawl in a transit village costume? Do we really have the proper regulatory tools, and more importantly, the public and political will, to achieve the density required for truly greener, more efficient cities?

True, most new rail lines in the United States connect to major employment centers, stadiums, university campuses, airports, and other major destinations. All that boosts ridership–as it should. Too frequently, though, plans for residential development within a half-mile of rail stations call for too few housing units to make a dent in cities’ growth projections.

For example, the two new light rail lines planned in the Twin Cities will add 30 new stations to the metro area. Current station area plans call for approximately 30,000 new housing units in the next 20 years. That seems like a lot, but it is just 10 percent of the 300,000 new households forecast for the Twin Cities in that time period. We need to ask: shouldn’t these station areas handle more of the total, like one-quarter or one-third? Increased intensity around each station will accommodate more of the metro area demand for housing and increase transit usage, reducing strain on roads and lowering vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Multiply this by upping the density around new train stations around the country and you start to curb the effects of sprawl.

Furthermore, increased density and a more robust mix of uses within transit villages makes them more active and increases trips on foot, even for people not using the transit system. A common standard for the number of housing units required to support a small, full-service grocery store, for example, is 10,000. Building a small fraction of that total in a transit village won’t support a grocer.

Arlington, Virginia, is appropriately cited as a top example of recent policy to create appropriate intensity around transit stations. There, a “bulls-eye” policy–to locate an intense mix of housing and other uses close to the five train stations along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor–has resulted in the appropriate density to boost demand for retail and other services within each transit village. The corridor also boasts very high ridership and modal splits. Arlington County’s success in getting a disproportionate amount of its real estate taxes from the intense uses along the corridor is a positive outcome of good land use policy. What is so spooky about that?

The ideal vision of the city in the future is more density built around transit villages. Demographic and housing demand forecasts support this vision. One cannot wave a magic wand and reverse sprawl, however. Lurking in the shadows are the NIMBYs, who will affect the political will to intensify uses at station areas, and increase the specter of sprawl-as-usual. But let’s not run in fear from the creation of attractive dense transit villages. Why? Business-as-usual is our scariest option, indeed!

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  1. George A. Laigle
    Posted October 31, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Newberg:
    You may be the person I have been looking for, for several years now. Your posting about the obvious benefits of high density housing with easy access to rail transport shows that you truly understand what must happen in the world, and especially in the USA, if we are to have the ability in the next decade to travel at an affordable cost to the average citizen. Our unbelievable urban sprawl will, very soon, become a gargantuan millstone around our necks. I live in Houston, and the sprawl 20 to 40 miles out from the city center must be seen to be believed. McMansions as far as the eye can see from the top of one of the many “freeway” overpasses as you go west, south, east and north. But to get to the main reason for my message; I am an engineer by inclination, talent, and training, with a B.S in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University, class of 1951. My wife and I have traveled for many years to Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, and one trip each to some of the significant cities in South America, and China. Also one very memorable trip to Leningrad in 1978, when the cold war was still very much alive. From my many observations of the well known cities of the world, I began to see that NONE were ever planned for their eventual (current) population. (Also, a great many were located one, to maybe five centuries ago, for reasons that now no longer exist). Thus, in every city I have ever visited, there are always areas under reconstruction, since as population grows, infrastructure ALWAYS becomes insufficient to service the citizens. ( Here in Houston, it is considered “normal” for major thoroughfares, highways, streets, sewers, communication infrastructure, etc. to be rebuilt every 20 to 30 years. [An incredibly large portion of our electric grid had to be rebuilt just last year after the hurricane IKE.] I have personally seen a major boulevard near my home of 40 years, 6 lanes, completely repaved lane by lane with concrete, over a period of 2 years, and then completely torn up again in less than 6 years, to install a giant underground storm sewer.) To finally get to the point of my message: I have done a many years of brainstorming on a plan to build a city that WORKS. By that, I mean it solves 80% to 90% of the problems common to EVERY major city in the world today. I began many years ago, starting by compiling a complete list, and the exact nature of the many ills common to all cities and their extended urbanized areas. (As an engineer, I learned that the first step in solving problems is to know and understand exactly what those problems are.) Since I will be 80 years old in a few months, it is clear to me, that if I cannot find someone who is passionate about, and learned, if not formally trained, in urban planning, to whom I can leave my body of work, it will all have been for naught, as it will be thrown out in the trash if I die before giving it away.
    So, I am hoping that I might open a dialogue with you by e-mail and phone, with my goal being the eventual selection of an individual or group with enough knowledge and incentive to appreciate my work and plans, and build on it. In one or two phone calls, I could summarize what I have to give away, so that you could make an informed decision as to whether you might wish to give me some advice, or ideas, as to how I might locate such a person or group. It is obvious to me, and should be to any objective person, that if we can plan and send a man to the moon, we can plan a very livable, sustainable city, designed for a specific maximum number of citizens, that works very well, (and I know that I have developed that plan). If you could spare 30 minutes or so for a phone call, I could give you a fairly complete picture of what I have to give away. If not a phone call, I could send you a very long letter, but I can talk a lot faster than I can type, and a phone call would give you the opportunity to ask questions.
    I, for one, appreciate very much the wisdom and common sense displayed in your posting – thank you. Sincerely, George A. Laigle phone 713-621-4197
    5414 John Dreaper, Houston, Tx. 77056

  2. Neal Peirce
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Comment from Harold Woodridge:
    Enjoyed the oped, agree with all you wrote. Only troubling aspect was lack of statement of higher density will be required as gas goes to 20/gallon in the next xx years & of course, as we go to 400 million in the next 25-30 years.

  3. Erik Harper
    Posted November 2, 2009 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Agree with everything you said. I want to bring up population forecasts because anytime I read something about the projected increases in population for a given area, they all seem to just keep pointing more and more upward and I have to ask, do you agree that there isn’t enough questioning of these projections?

    A lot of experts out there, mainly a lot of peak-oilers and various futurists would say that populations worldwide will be on the decline due to diminishing resources, and by that they mainly are talking about fossil fuels. It’s pretty apparent that our current population can be directly attributed to fossil fuel usage over the past century, so in a future with less and less of that fuel being used, wouldn’t you conclude that there will be less people as a result? Think about it, much of our mainstream agricultural system (the life support system for our abundant population) is based on fossil fuel for much of its input. Take those inputs away, and you lose the ability to support as much life.

    I think these kind of future projections of populations may be a little on the high side, and maybe that is a good thing when you’re trying to address something like sprawl because of the damaging effects of that on land use and many other issues, but do you think that a lot of these issues may be negligible as we see populations start to decline?

  4. Posted December 28, 2009 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Density is a Big Goblin for a number of reasons — not the least of which is the NIMBY reaction of most suburbs to any mention of density — which conjures up visions of rental apartments (and the types of people who might occupy them, impact on schools, traffic, crime, etc.) — coming to towns of low density, higher income, high cost homes (and notwithstanding the needs of these cities for retail, restaurant, school, police, firefighter, etc. lower income workers). These attitudes will unfortunately change slowly, but the change will accelerate as the GenY/Millenium Generation, who are more comfortable with intercultural, inter-city, dense living come of age.